Features

Drenched in its identity

"Drenched in its identity" Continued...

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

Those jazz funerals are a New Orleans tradition that began with the death of black Union Capt. Andre Caillou in 1863. Over 10,000 mourners turned out for a large funeral featuring a brass band, and since then funeral organizers have often hired bands to play dirges and somber hymns before burial and upbeat tunes afterward. That's still a part of what makes New Orleans an identity-drenched place.

"Second lines"-residents who aren't officially part of a parade but follow it to enjoy the brass band music-are another New Orleans custom that drenches the city and keeps it from being a nonplace. The Crescent City-named that because of the Mississippi's curve-is also famous for its clubs where people eat gumbo, drink a beer or two, and dance to groups like the Tremé Brass Band.

The view of a visitor like me is going to be incomplete and probably mistaken in its emphases-and yet, even I can see how different it is to live in a place rather than a nonplace. Even Walker Percy, seeking a writer's anonymity, only wanted to be nowhere as long as he was close to somewhere.

The error of the 1950s-1970s era in many American cities was a downgrading of distinctives. Urban renewal destroyed poor but quirky neighborhoods. Baseball stadiums had equidistant foul lines and smooth circumferences instead of the nooks and crannies that made parks like Fenway and Wrigley curious and beloved. Fast food franchises began replacing local diners. Something gained but something lost.

The challenge for America's cities that are somewhere: Don't lose what is distinctive or emphasize chain hotels and restaurants and other buildings that, no matter how elegant, could just as well be anywhere.

"Neutral grounds"?

The Wire, an HBO television series set in Baltimore and now available on DVD, has the best depiction of inner-city life I've ever seen on large or small screens (see "Goodnight, hoppers; goodnight, hustlers everywhere," World, July 26, 2008). Its producer, David Simon, has a new television series beginning next month, Tremé, named after the New Orleans African-American neighborhood (just north of the French Quarter) where jazz began. The series will focus on traditional jazz and brass-band musicians, along with SAPC members, second-line parades, and Mardi Gras Indians.

Simon told The Wall Street Journal that he wants "to create a drama about why the American city matters." He also wants "to consider whether or not what is essential and rare and unique about New Orleans, and what it provides the American character, is going to survive in a form that is self-sustaining and organic, not just a museum piece."

Simon's job is hard, for-as the Journal noted-"New Orleans is famously idiosyncratic, right down to how locals refer to the most mundane elements of life: Paved street medians, for instance, are 'neutral grounds.'" But there is little neutrality in the way people normally approach the identity-drenched city. Many love it. Others hate it.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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